Dispatch from Milan: Innovations for a More Resourceful Food System
In early May 2017 we joined food technology innovators and entrepreneurs at the 3rd annual Seeds and Chips Global Food Innovation Summit. The conference featured a keynote address by former President Barack Obama, who spoke to the critical relationships among our global food system, climate change, health outcomes, and socioeconomic inclusion. He also discussed the shocking inefficiency of a global food system that currently wastes one-third of all the food it produces. Throughout the conference, we were encouraged to hear repeated recognition of the urgency and opportunity associated with food waste reduction. We were also energized by the entrepreneurs and innovators that are working at the forefront of the food system to bring new solutions and ideas to the food waste fight.
Here are some of the ideas that caught our attention:
- “Upcycled” products continue to gain momentum. Several years ago, Sir Kensington’s use of aquafaba (a.k.a., chickpea water) in their vegan mayonnaise was the best-known example of “upcycling” – the practice of repurposing byproducts that would otherwise be wasted into new, edible offerings. Now, a sub-sector of upcycled products appears to be emerging, including Renewal Mill’s Okara flour (made from a soy byproduct), coffee flour (made from unused parts of coffee cherry) and Rise flour (made from spent beer grain; also the winner of last year’s OpenIDEO Food Waste Challenge).
- Repurposing wasted food can contribute to a sustainable protein economy. While feeding people remains at the top of the food recovery hierarchy, sometimes waste cannot be diverted in this way. Koppert is a Dutch company using compost to feed insect larvae, which in turn are being farmed as fish food. This limits the need to use small fish as feed for larger fish, thus preserving an alternative food stock.
- “Self-Production” technology could reduce waste and increase access to fresh foods. Many of the largest vertical farm players came together at Seeds & Chips to share the latest processes and technologies that have the potential to transform entire urban food systems. Agrilution and Cell Garden are designing units that can fit in your home kitchen, creating a fresh and lower-waste option for tough-to-transport herbs and greens. AeroFarms is a New Jersey company leveraging aeroponic systems to grow crops at an industrial scale while reducing food waste through extension of shelf life and repurposing of trimmings.
- “Big Data” is fueling a new level of transparency and just-in-time decision making. Several companies highlighted how “big data” is unlocking a new level of insight into food throughout the supply chain. One emerging technology in particular, blockchain (otherwise known as distributed ledger technology) allows us to trace our food from its origination across the entire supply chain. Ripe.io is leveraging the blockchain to create a dynamic scorecard system that measures growing, transportation, and storage conditions. This tool can improve understanding of food provenance, send alerts about spoilage, and enable automated food purchasing based on optimal ripeness. Founded last year, Impact Vision is a start-up based out of San Francisco and London leveraging hyperspectral imagery analysis to detect the quality and shelf life of food – a determination that currently can only be made through invasive methods such as cutting or pressing. They are piloting the approach with a restaurant chain in the United States by identifying the ripeness of avocados and freshness of beef. The goal is to reduce waste by minimizing the amount of product that needs to be discarded.
- Digital labels might enable smarter shopping. Aggregated online data can also make the procurement of personalized diets more convenient. The Sage Project is partnering with major retailers and CPG companies to build a database of detailed nutrition information for thousands of products. Once complete, the database would contain vastly more data than can be printed on physical labels, and will allow consumers to filter purchases according to their preferences at the beginning of a shopping experience. For example, they could be directed to products to avoid allergens (e.g., tree nuts), meet nutritional needs (e.g., low salt, high vitamin A), and even reflect social preferences (e.g., recyclable packaging).
In order to cut global food loss and waste in half, we will need to scale known solutions and innovate new solutions. The existing prevention, recovery and recycling solutions identified in ReFED’s roadmap are projected to result in a 20% reduction in food waste in the U.S. In order to achieve the remaining 30% of our national waste reduction goal, we’ll need to draw on the kinds of bold ideas and technology advances that we saw in Milan.